• Phil McAuliffe

What is friendship?

We know that friendship is important,

but what makes a friendship?


Friendship is an important source of connection for all humans. Friends see us. They hear us. We feel like we belong when we’re with a friend.


There are numerous examples of the importance of a strong friendship group to help us through life. Indeed, the longevity of people in Japan and southern Europe is often attributed to having a strong friendship group (see here and here for examples).


We spend our lives learning how make and how to be friends. Indeed, our childhoods are about moving beyond our family unit as our most important source of love, acceptance and support.


This is especially so in our adolescence. Do you remember your teenage years? Do you remember what you did to be accepted and feel like you belonged?


For gay men, friendships can take on further significance. If our families do not accept us for being gay, we can build family-like support structures with people through the bonds of friendship.


And while not the exclusive domain of gay men, we stratify our friends. On one end of the spectrum, there are Facebook friends and Instagram followers who we allow to see our life’s highlight reels on social media. On the other, there are those closest, real friends who we call when we really need help. Somewhere on our friendship spectrum, we could have friends with benefits and fuck buddies who we allow to see us naked and have casual sex with. And there may also be our ‘bros’ with whom we hang out, share meals, take holidays but never really get real with.


However they are stratified and classified, our friends are tremendously important to our physical, mental and emotional well-being.


For the gay man who’s experiencing loneliness


Friends and friendship can be a tricky and elusive concept.


We may be surrounded by ‘friends’ and have hundreds or even thousands of social media friends yet feel that no one sees us. We can feel that no one hears us. We fear that we won’t belong if they do see and hear the real us.


The search for acceptance and belonging


We search for real friends who love us and accept us for who we are.


Until we feel that have those real friends, we can hustle to fit in and be accepted. We can hustle to feel like we belong. We can eagerly change who we are in that hustle for acceptance.


The hustle can feel like we’re living an eternal, hellish version of our high school experience.

The hustle can make us do all sorts of weird things. We can edit parts of ourselves to fit what we believe others will accept. This editing may be changing what we say and how we say it, what our interests are, what our beliefs are. Indeed, we can change how we show up in the world.


These edits can be subtle at first. They may start with simple things like how we dress, what we eat, what we listen to or watch. Then it may evolve into editing our views on issues of morality that we haven’t yet tested within ourselves (like our position on polyamory) so we continue to feel accepted and that we belong.


When we’re hustling for acceptance and belonging, we’re playing a game in which the rules always change. It’s a game that we can never win. Just as we feel that we’ve figured it out and have moulded and edited our selves to fit in, the rules change and the hustle to find our new place begins anew.


This hustle affects us in two ways:


1. We’re not connected with our authentic selves as we’re not living according to our values; we're living according to someone else's (read about the importance of values here). This leads to that unsettled, uncomfortable feeling within us where we continually find ourselves in situations and wonder how we got there; and


2. We keep playing the game because the idea of stopping is terrifying. The fear of not belonging and not being accepted reignites the insecure teenager inside of us. It feels better to have some acceptance and feeling of belonging than to have none, right?


Please read this slowly: you are worthy of love and belonging exactly as you are. You do not have to hustle or play the game.

Read that again.


What can we do?


We need to start living like we’re worthy of love and belonging.


This starts by paying attention to how we’re interacting with our friends.


Do you feel like you must be ‘on’ when you’re with them?


Acting in a certain way or playing a part we feel is expected for us is a sure sign that we're being inauthentic.


Do you find yourself talking about the same issues or talking about the past?

Could it be that your friendship is based on one issue or event?


Are you always initiating contact?


This one is very tough when we’re lonely, as we know we need to reach out to get the connection we need. But if we’re the only party in a relationship who’s initiating any kind of contact, we may be doing the equivalent of watering dead plants. Reciprocity is important.


Are you on each other's VIP list?


Yes, we’re all busy (and busyness will feature in content in the future). Know this: there’s always time for what, and who, is important. You’re worthy of more than a non-committal ‘We should really catch up soon!’ response.


Friends can’t wait to connect with each other again and prioritise that connection.


Are you being told to edit yourself?


Have you ever been told to dial it down, to put on a smile or something similar? I’ve simply no time for this. And I’ve experienced this throughout my life and I’m done. I’m calling this for what it is: A chicken shit move designed to shame us into altering who we are and how we interact with the world to make others feel more comfortable around us. Friends want you to be who you are and don’t let you settle for anything less than who you are.


If your friends are telling you to tone it down, or change your behaviour for the company of people you are about to meet – this is clear sign that those people are not worthy of you if they feel intimidated by who you are. Don’t shy away from what makes you great and what makes you, you.

Do you feel you have to keep their attention?


When once we felt the spark of connection with someone and then feel the spark dying out, do you find that you concoct ways to keep their attention? This can be done consciously or unconsciously and can look like contriving dramas, engaging in gossip, engaging in ever-more risky behaviours to keep their attention?


I feel that this is common amongst people experiencing loneliness as we try to recapture the connection that was once felt.


Are you always playing the Nice Guy?


Being the Nice Guy is a common ploy to forever stay in the good graces and opinions of others. This is learned behaviour and reinforced through societal expectations of friendship. Are you the first to offer help, even when it’s not asked? Are you always helping friends move house? Are you the first to offer someone a ride to or from the airport?


Please don’t misunderstand me, this can look a lot like being a friend. However, there’s a difference between being a friend and finding ways of making ourselves indispensable.


How do you define ‘friend’?

As a gay man who experiences loneliness, how do you define friend? Moreover, are you quick to call people a real – or close – friend? I certainly am.


I’ve learned that I’m quick to call people a friend when I feel a connection. I like that aspect of my personality. Feeling a connection is important to me as it is to you, too. I’ve learned that I need to be open, friendly and, well, me AND be more discerning about who I allow into my inner sanctum (get your mind away from there... =)).


Redefining friendship


I feel that it’s time that we redefined friendship. I fear that social media has skewed our definition of friendship to one where we value quantity over quality.


This is a poor metric and can fuel our sense of being alone while surrounded by people. It can fuel the ‘shoulds’: those thoughts where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel lonely because we’ve got heaps of friends.


Perhaps you simply know a lot of people’s names and a lot of people know yours. You have a lot of people in your life with whom you could have lunch or invite to a party but no one knows you.


A friend is someone with whom we feel that we belong. We’re seen for who we are. We’re heard and we’re loved for it. That feeling is reciprocated. As such, friendship requires us to know who we are and then each show up in that relationship as our selves.

A final thing to think about


I hope that these words have you thinking about the state of your friendships. Indeed, you may be feeling uncomfortable. I’m OK with that. We rarely have any incentive to change when we’re comfortable.


To help you in your thinking and reflecting, I invite you to answer these questions:


How many people in your life are there for you when it’s inconvenient for them?


and


How many people in your life are you there for when it’s inconvenient for you?

Do they match up?


If you have no one, it’s time to work on that.


If you have more than five, are you oversharing?


If you have two or three people, then you’re winning at life.


Know this – you are worthy of the same love and friendship from others that you’re so freely giving others.


Need help?


Please, in answering the questions above, resist the temptation to put your friends through Survivor-style friendship tests. This isn’t school. Mature kind and honest conversations are needed to discuss this issue. Join me in Ep. 18 of my podcast ‘Connection over Coffee with the Loneliness Guy’ for more on having these kind and honest conversations and to hear the story of my hustle for acceptance and belonging.


You may also want the expertise of a great coach in your corner. I have a page on my site with links to two amazing coaches – Michael DiIorio and Mike Campbell – with whom I’ve partnered who can help you be you in the world.


Check out their services here and be sure to tell them that I sent you.



Where to now?


Connection is the antidote to loneliness. Subscribe to my website through either a basic subscription (free) or premium subscription (monthly charge) and let’s stay connected as we work to de-stigmatise loneliness and promote authentic connection for gay men.


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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to chronic loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Resources page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional where you are in the world.


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